The Restoration of Bahia is Underway

Bahia de Caraquez has already lost its earthquake-struck look. Some prominent buildings of several stories that retained cracks and holes where cement was lost in 1998 have been patched or otherwise restored, and the absence of those particularly eye-gouging open wounds has an uplifting effect..

The people have a similar forward looking attitude. It’s an accepted fact that the economy is pathetically unstable, and in a controversial move, the US dollar officially replaces the native sucre currency on September 12 .But strangely this has become a challenge rather than just a condition for despair whether people are opposed to it or not. Government posters with photograph-like images of a penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and half-dollar declare, “Conozca la moneda! (Know the money!)” There is no question that everyone is frantic to learn how to make correct change in less than a week’s time remaining before the deadline. This shared quest is presently the most major national event.

Judy Goldhaft and I have homed in on the Leonidas Plaza office/apartment where one of the next-door sawmills is grinding with a continuous guttural whine while this is being written at 7PM. (It’s not out of place for the work to continue so late considering that it begins at about the same hour in the morning.) This is an almost achingly working class parochia (suburban city) where only small stores operate out of house fronts, nearly all of the streets are unpaved, most buildings are single story, and packed buses of low-salaried laborers head into adjacent Bahia in the morning and back home at night.

From the first day that we obtained a field office here, we have contributed use of the main room’s space during the day to a women’s collective named Arte Papel that is sponsored by the Eco-Bahia Center for Environmental Education. It makes stationery and other articles out of recycled paper decorated with wild flowers in unique designs. Several other companies in Ecuador manufacture similar items, but this group of a dozen neighborhood people who were formerly unemployed only began about a year ago and has already progressed to the point where their extensively handcrafted paper products can be successfully marketed. It is an easy-going relationship because we leave before the paper makers arrive and usually return after they have gone. Since Planet Drum staff have been here irregularly so far, this arrangement provides continuous evidence of our participation in the process of creating an ecological city and our partnership with the Eco-Bahia Center.

For eight cents each we ride the crammed buses each morning to have a breakfast of several fruits, café con leche, small rolls, and buttery omelet at Jacob Santos’ Bahia Bed & Breakfast Inn and plan out the day. Besides his position as secretary of the Eco-Bahia Center, Jacob has become a major figure in the eco-ciudad movement by being essential to many different projects. Recently he has been dutifully assisting Augusto Bravo, a Brazilian community water systems master’s degree candidate (at a Danish university!) who is working under the aegis of Planet Drum to recommend the most ecological strategies for sourcing, purifying and delivering water in Bahia.

Although there are plenty of things that require attention, each day’s activity develops its own stubborn will in spite of us. Bahia is small enough that acquaintances who might be difficult to reach elsewhere simply appear while walking on the street. It is actually difficult to complete tasks or keep appointments because of multiple conversations between starting out and arriving somewhere. Strength of character here sometimes involves nothing more durable than keeping your own schedule. In one week we’ve met or visited almost everyone known from the past three trips.

Judy took photographs while I reviewed the revegetation project twice and found that most plants have survived five dry months that thus far followed last winter’s rainy season. Paja macho grass seedlings comprised half of the ten thousand original plantings that were made and almost all of them flourished and bore seeds which should sprout in huge numbers when downpours come in December to make brown slide areas green again. Their role in reducing further erosion is to cause runoff of rain on the steepest slopes so that water won’t saturate the clay soil and slurry it away in mudslides again. Distinctive grey-green leaved algorrobo shrubs (a relative of desert mesquite) with wiry soil-holding roots seem to have all come through as well. Disappointingly, only a handful of muyullo and hobo trees which were planted throughout the site as cut stakes rather than seedlings have struggled through to this point. The rainy season was late and relatively scanty this year, so even though we put these in first they probably never received enough moisture. On the other hand, Ferdnan Sanchez and guayacan tree seedlings are doing well. At least fifty self-seeded fruitillo trees have grown ten feet since El Nino mudslides scrubbed the soil bare two years ago, giving an intimation of what the eventual forest will look like.

We met the new ecology-minded mayor and requested park status for the city-owned revegetation site. He’s in complete agreement and wants us to propose an ordinance for approval by the city council. It could be a memorial park for the mudslide victims who died there and retain the ruined house walls and a fractured cement staircase as testimony to their fate. Marcelo Luque has begun a survey to determine where walking paths might go to best show native plant specimens in the Forest of the Ruins. Developing the paths may be the principal work of our new assistant Caire Dibble and her boyfriend Tony Mattei when the come on September 15.

Plant note: The elegant seiba (or seibo depending on how the speaker feels toward it) tree that resembles African baobabs and has smooth green skin in maturity looks totally extra-terrestrial as a young plant. Its skinny trunk is dotted profusely with large brown thorns and crowned by a plume of green and red leaves. Science fiction film art directors are more modest.

Animal notes: The revegetation site has tangara birds with delicately colored rust-tan and white wings that give them a floating look in flight. While walking on a ridge during a visit to Jacob’s farm we saw a good-sized scat containing mostly seeds and hair that might have come from an animal about the size of a small pig. The farm overseer mentioned that a coastal wild cat had been seen nearby. This is the first sign I’ve had of the extremely elusive larger coastal mammals.

Obligatory cuisine note: The traditional restaurant midday almuerzo lunch is unquestionably the best thing to eat each day. Half the price of dinner, or less, it comes as a set menu with a fruit drink, soup, vegetable or salad, and rice topped with a small but concentrated savory sauce. An unforgettable example of the latter was made with fresh sardines, onions and potatoes. There might even be a small dessert of fruit or cookies. Large lunches are the rule here followed by at least an hour’s rest. Anyone who tries to maintain a different pattern in the equatorial climate doesn’t get any of my sympathy.

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